You know you are working with some of the finest scientific minds in the world when they get elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences (NAS). It’s the science equivalent of the baseball, football or even Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. People only get in if their peers vote them in. It’s considered one of the highest honors in science, one earned over many decades of hard work. And when it comes to hard work there are few people who work harder than U.C. San Diego’s Dr. Lawrence Goldstein, one of the newly elected members of the NAS.
For more than 25 years Larry’s work has targeted the brain and, in particular, Alzheimer’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
In 2012 his team was the first to create stem cell models for two different forms of Alzheimer’s, the hereditary and the sporadic forms. This gave researchers a new way of studying the disease, helping them better understand what causes it and looking at new ways of treating it.
His work has also helped develop a deeper understanding of the genetics of Alzheimer’s and to identify possible new targets for stem cell and other therapies.
Larry was typically modest when he heard the news, saying: “I have been very fortunate to have wonderful graduate students and fellows who have accomplished a great deal of excellent research. It is a great honor for me and for all of my past students and fellows – I am obviously delighted and hope to contribute to the important work of the National Academy of Sciences.”
But Larry doesn’t intend to rest on his laurels. He says he still has a lot of work to do, including “raising funding to test a new drug approach for Alzheimer’s disease that we’ve developed with CIRM support.”
Jennifer Briggs Braswell, PhD, worked with Larry at UCSD from 2005 to 2018. She says Larry’s election to the NAS is well deserved:
“His high quality publications, the pertinence of his studies in neurodegeneration to our current problems, and his constant, unwavering devotion to the next generation of scientists is matched only by his dedication to improving public understanding of science to motivate social, political, and financial support.
“He has been for me a supportive mentor, expressing enthusiastic belief in the likely success of my good ideas and delivering critique with kindness and sympathy. He continues to inspire me, our colleagues at UCSD and other communities, advocate publicly for the importance of science, and work tirelessly on solutions for neurodegenerative disorders.”
Way back in 2013, the CIRM Board invested $32 million in a project to create an iPSC Bank. The goal was simple; to collect tissue samples from people who have different diseases, turn those samples into high quality stem cell lines – the kind known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) – and create a facility where those lines can be stored and distributed to researchers who need them.
Fast forward almost seven years and that idea has now become the largest public iPSC bank in the world. The story of how that happened is the subject of a great article (by CIRM’s Dr. Stephen Lin) in the journal Science Direct.
In 2013 there was a real need for the bank. Scientists around the world were doing important research but many were creating the cells they used for that research in different ways. That made it hard to compare one study to another and come up with any kind of consistent finding. The iPSC Bank was designed to change that by creating one source for high quality cells, collected, processed and stored under a single, consistent method.
Tissue samples – either blood or skin – were collected from thousands of individuals around California. Each donor underwent a thorough consent process – including being shown a detailed brochure – to explain what iPS cells are and how the research would be done.
The diseases to be studied through this bank include:
Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD)
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
Cardiomyopathies (heart conditions)
Fatty Liver diseases
Hepatitis C (HCV)
Primary Open Angle Glaucoma
The samples were screened to make sure they were safe – for example the blood was tested for HBV and HIV – and then underwent rigorous quality control testing to make sure they met the highest standards.
Once approved the samples were then turned into iPSCs at a special facility at the Buck Institute in Novato and those lines were then made available to researchers around the world, both for-profit and non-profit entities.
Scientists are now able to use these cells for a wide variety of uses including disease modeling, drug discovery, drug development, and transplant studies in animal research models. It gives them a greater ability to study how a disease develops and progresses and to help discover and test new drugs or other therapies
The Bank, which is now run by FUJIFILM Cellular Dynamics, has become a powerful resource for studying genetic variation between individuals, helping scientists understand how disease and treatment vary in a diverse population. Both CIRM and Fuji Film are committed to making even more improvements and additions to the collection in the future to ensure this is a vital resource for researchers for years to come.
On December 12th we hosted our latest ‘Facebook Live: Ask the Stem Cell Team’ event. This time around we really did mean team. We had a host of our Science Officers answering questions from friends and supporters of CIRM. We got a lot of questions and didn’t have enough time to address them all. So here’s answers to all the questions.
What are the obstacles to using partial cellular reprogramming to return people’s entire bodies to a youthful state.Paul Hartman. San Leandro, California
Dr. Kelly Shepard: Certainly, scientists have observed that various manipulations of cells, including reprogramming, partial reprogramming, de-differentiation and trans-differentiation, can restore or change properties of cells, and in some cases, these changes can reflect a more “youthful” state, such as having longer telomeres, better proliferative capacity, etc. However, some of these same rejuvenating properties, outside of their normal context, could be harmful or deadly, for example if a cell began to grow and divide when or where it shouldn’t, similar to cancer. For this reason, I believe the biggest obstacles to making this approach a reality are twofold: 1) our current, limited understanding of the nature of partially reprogrammed cells; and 2) our inability to control the fate of those cells that have been partially reprogrammed, especially if they are inside a living organism. Despite the challenges, I think there will be step wise advances where these types of approaches will be applied, starting with specific tissues. For example, CIRM has recently funded an approach that uses reprogramming to make “rejuvenated” versions of T cells for fighting lung cancer. There is also a lot of interest in using such approaches to restore the reparative capacity of aged muscle. Perhaps some successes in these more limited areas will be the basis for expanding to a broader use.
What’s going on with Stanford’s stem cell trials for stroke? I remember the first trial went really well In 2016 have not heard anything about since? Elvis Arnold
Dr. Lila Collins: Hi Elvis, this is an evolving story. I believe you are referring to SanBio’s phase 1/2a stroke trial, for which Stanford was a site. This trial looked at the safety and feasibility of SanBio’s donor or allogeneic stem cell product in chronic stroke patients who still had motor deficits from their strokes, even after completing physical therapy when natural recovery has stabilized. As you note, some of the treated subjects had promising motor recoveries.
SanBio has since completed a larger, randomized phase 2b trial in stroke, and they have released the high-level results in a press release. While the trial did not meet its primary endpoint of improving motor deficits in chronic stroke, SanBio conducted a very similar randomized trial in patients with stable motor deficits from chronic traumatic brain injury (TBI). In this trial, SanBio saw positive results on motor recovery with their product. In fact, this product is planned to move towards a conditional approval in Japan and has achieved expedited regulatory status in the US, termed RMAT, in TBI which means it could be available more quickly to patients if all goes well. SanBio plans to continue to investigate their product in stroke, so I would stay tuned as the work unfolds.
Also, since you mentioned Stanford, I should note that Dr Gary Steinberg, who was a clinical investigator in the SanBio trial you mentioned, will soon be conducting a trial with a different product that he is developing, neural progenitor cells, in chronic stroke. The therapy looks promising in preclinical models and we are hopeful it will perform well for patients in the clinic.
I am a stroke survivor will stem cell treatment able to restore my motor skills?Ruperto
Dr. Lila Collins:
Hi Ruperto. Restoring motor loss after stroke is a very active area of research. I’ll touch upon a few ongoing stem cell trials. I’d just like to please advise that you watch my colleague’s comments on stem cell clinics (these can be found towards the end of the blog) to be sure that any clinical research in which you participate is as safe as possible and regulated by FDA.
Back to stroke, I mentioned SanBio’s ongoing work to address motor skill loss in chronic stroke earlier. UK based Reneuron is also conducting a phase 2 trial, using a neural progenitor cell as a candidate therapy to help recover persistent motor disability after stroke (chronic). Dr Gary Steinberg at Stanford is also planning to conduct a clinical trial of a human embryonic stem cell-derived neuronal progenitor cell in stroke.
There is also promising work being sponsored by Athersys in acute stroke. Athersys published results from their randomized, double blinded placebo controlled Ph2 trial of their Multistem product in patients who had suffered a stroke within 24-48 hours. After intravenous delivery, the cells improved a composite measure of stroke recovery, including motor recovery. Rather than acting directly on the brain, Multistem seems to work by traveling to the spleen and reducing the inflammatory response to a stroke that can make the injury worse.
Athersys is currently recruiting a phase 3 trial of its Multistem product in acute stroke (within 1.5 days of the stroke). The trial has an accelerated FDA designation, called RMAT and a special protocol assessment. This means that if the trial is conducted as planned and it reaches the results agreed to with the FDA, the therapy could be cleared for marketing. Results from this trial should be available in about two years.
Questions from several hemorrhagic stroke survivors who say most clinical trials are for people with ischemic strokes. Could stem cells help hemorrhagic stroke patients as well?
Dr. Lila Collins:
Regarding hemorrhagic stroke, you are correct the bulk of cell therapies for stroke target ischemic stroke, perhaps because this accounts for the vast bulk of strokes, about 85%.
That said, hemorrhagic strokes are not rare and tend to be more deadly. These strokes are caused by bleeding into or around the brain which damages neurons. They can even increase pressure in the skull causing further damage. Because of this the immediate steps treating these strokes are aimed at addressing the initial bleeding insult and the blood in the brain.
While most therapies in development target ischemic stroke, successful therapies developed to repair neuronal damage or even some day replace lost neurons, could be beneficial after hemorrhagic stroke as well.
I had an Ischemic stroke in 2014, and my vision was also affected. Can stem cells possibly help with my vision issues. James Russell
Dr. Lila Collins:
Hi James. Vision loss from stroke is complex and the type of loss depends upon where the stroke occurred (in the actual eye, the optic nerve or to the other parts of the brain controlling they eye or interpreting vision). The results could be:
Visual loss from damage to the retina
You could have a normal eye with damage to the area of the brain that controls the eye’s movement
You could have damage to the part of the brain that interprets vision.
You can see that to address these various issues, we’d need different cell replacement approaches to repair the retina or the parts of the brain that were damaged.
Replacing lost neurons is an active effort that at the moment is still in the research stages. As you can imagine, this is complex because the neurons have to make just the right connections to be useful.
Is there any stem cell therapy for optical nerve damage? Deanna Rice
Dr. Ingrid Caras: There is currently no proven stem cell therapy to treat optical nerve damage, even though there are shady stem cell clinics offering treatments. However, there are some encouraging early gene therapy studies in mice using a virus called AAV to deliver growth factors that trigger regeneration of the damaged nerve. These studies suggest that it may be possible to restore at least some visual function in people blinded by optic nerve damage from glaucoma
I read an article about ReNeuron’s retinitis pigmentosa clinical trial update. In the article, it states: “The company’s treatment is a subretinal injection of human retinal progenitors — cells which have almost fully developed into photoreceptors, the light-sensing retinal cells that make vision possible.” My question is: If they can inject hRPC, why not fully developed photoreceptors?Leonard
Dr. Kelly Shepard: There is evidence from other studies, including from other tissue types such as blood, pancreas, heart and liver, that fully developed (mature) cell types tend not to engraft as well upon transplantation, that is the cells do not establish themselves and survive long term in their new environment. In contrast, it has been observed that cells in a slightly less “mature” state, such as those in the progenitor stage, are much more likely to establish themselves in a tissue, and then differentiate into more mature cell types over time. This question gets at the crux of a key issue for many new therapies, i.e. what is the best cell type to use, and the best timing to use it.
My question for the “Ask the Stem Cell Team” event is: When will jCyte publish their Phase IIb clinical trial results. Chris Allen
Dr. Ingrid Caras: The results will be available sometime in 2020.
I understand the hRPC cells are primarily neurotropic (rescue/halt cell death); however, the literature also says hRPC can become new photoreceptors. My questions are:Approximately what percentage develop into functioning photoreceptors? And what percentage of the injected hRPC are currently surviving?Leonard Furber, an RP Patient
Dr. Kelly Shepard: While we can address these questions in the lab and in animal models, until there is a clinical trial, it is not possible to truly recreate the environment and stresses that the cells will undergo once they are transplanted into a human, into the site where they are expected to survive and function. Thus, the true answer to this question may not be known until after clinical trials are performed and the results can be evaluated. Even then, it is not always possible to monitor the fate of cells after transplantation without removing tissues to analyze (which may not be feasible), or without being able to transplant labeled cells that can be readily traced.
Dr. Ingrid Caras – Although the cells have been shown to be capable of developing into photoreceptors, we don’t know if this actually happens when the cells are injected into a patient’s eye. The data so far suggest that the cells work predominantly by secreting growth factors that rescue damaged retinal cells or even reverse the damage. So one possible outcome is that the cells slow or prevent further deterioration of vision. But an additional possibility is that damaged retinal cells that are still alive but are not functioning properly may become healthy and functional again which could result in an improvement in vision.
What advances have been made using stem cells for the treatment of Type 2 Diabetes?Mary Rizzo
Dr. Ross Okamura: Type 2 Diabetes (T2D) is a disease where the body is unable to maintain normal glucose levels due to either resistance to insulin-regulated control of blood sugar or insufficient insulin production from pancreatic beta cells. The onset of disease has been associated with lifestyle influenced factors including body mass, stress, sleep apnea and physical activity, but it also appears to have a genetic component based upon its higher prevalence in certain populations.
Type 1 Diabetes (T1D) differs from T2D in that in T1D patients the pancreatic beta cells have been destroyed by the body’s immune system and the requirement for insulin therapy is absolute upon disease onset rather than gradually developing over time as in many T2D cases. Currently the only curative approach to alleviate the heavy burden of disease management in T1D has been donor pancreas or islet transplantation. However, the supply of donor tissue is small relative to the number of diabetic patients. Donor islet and pancreas transplants also require immune suppressive drugs to prevent allogenic immune rejection and the use of these drugs carry additional health concerns. However, for some patients with T1D, especially those who may develop potentially fatal hypoglycemia, immune suppression is worth the risk.
To address the issue of supply, there has been significant activity in stem cell research to produce insulin secreting beta cells from pluripotent stem cells and recent clinical data from Viacyte’s CIRM funded trial indicates that implanted allogeneic human stem cell derived cells in T1D patients can produce circulating c-peptide, a biomarker for insulin. While the trial is not designed specifically to cure insulin-dependent T2D patients, the ability to produce and successfully engraft stem cell-derived beta cells would be able to help all insulin-dependent diabetic patients.
It’s also worth noting that there is a sound scientific reason to clinically test a patient-derived pluripotent stem cell-based insulin-producing cells in insulin-dependent T2D diabetic patients; the cells in this case could be evaluated for their ability to cure diabetes in the absence of needing to prevent both allogeneic and autoimmune responses.
SPINAL CORD INJURY
Is there any news on clinical trials for spinal cord injury? Le Ly
Kevin McCormack: The clinical trial CIRM was funding, with Asterias (now part of a bigger company called Lineage Cell Therapeutics, is now completed and the results were quite encouraging. In a news release from November of 2019 Brian Culley, CEO of Lineage Cell Therapeutics, described the results this way.
“We remain extremely excited about the potential for OPC1 (the name of the therapy used) to provide enhanced motor recovery to patients with spinal cord injuries. We are not aware of any other investigative therapy for SCI (spinal cord injury) which has reported as encouraging clinical outcomes as OPC1, particularly with continued improvement beyond 1 year. Overall gains in motor function for the population assessed to date have continued, with Year 2 assessments measuring the same or higher than at Year 1. For example, 5 out of 6 Cohort 2 patients have recovered two or more motor levels on at least one side as of their Year 2 visit whereas 4 of 6 patients in this group had recovered two motor levels as of their Year 1 visit. To put these improvements into perspective, a one motor level gain means the ability to move one’s arm, which contributes to the ability to feed and clothe oneself or lift and transfer oneself from a wheelchair. These are tremendously meaningful improvements to quality of life and independence. Just as importantly, the overall safety of OPC1 has remained excellent and has been maintained 2 years following administration, as measured by MRI’s in patients who have had their Year 2 follow-up visits to date. We look forward to providing further updates on clinical data from SCiStar as patients continue to come in for their scheduled follow up visits.”
Lineage Cell Therapeutics plans to meet with the FDA in 2020 to discuss possible next steps for this therapy.
In the meantime the only other clinical trial I know that is still recruiting is one run by a company called Neuralstem. Here is a link to information about that trial on the www.clinicaltrials.gov website.
Now that the Brainstorm ALS trial is finished looking for new patients do you have any idea how it’s going and when can we expect to see results? Angela Harrison Johnson
Dr. Ingrid Caras: The treated patients have to be followed for a period of time to assess how the therapy is working and then the data will need to be analyzed. So we will not expect to see the results probably for another year or two.
Are there treatments for autism or fragile x using stem cells? Magda Sedarous
Dr. Kelly Shepard: Autism and disorders on the autism spectrum represent a collection of many different disorders that share some common features, yet have different causes and manifestations, much of which we still do not understand. Knowing the origin of a disorder and how it affects cells and systems is the first step to developing new therapies. CIRM held a workshop on Autism in 2009 to brainstorm potential ways that stem cell research could have an impact. A major recommendation was to exploit stem cells and new technological advances to create cells and tissues, such as neurons, in the lab from autistic individuals that could then be studied in great detail. CIRM followed this recommendation and funded several early-stage awards to investigate the basis of autism, including Rett Syndrome, Fragile X, Timothy Syndrome, and other spectrum disorders. While these newer investigations have not yet led to therapies that can be tested in humans, this remains an active area of investigation. Outside of CIRM funding, we are aware of more mature studies exploring the effects of umbilical cord blood or other specific stem cell types in treating autism, such as an ongoing clinical trial conducted at Duke University.
What is happening with Parkinson’s research? Hanifa Gaphoor
Dr. Kent Fitzgerald: Parkinson’s disease certainly has a significant amount of ongoing work in the regenerative medicine and stem cell research.
The nature of cell loss in the brain, specifically the dopaminergic cells responsible for regulating the movement, has long been considered a good candidate for cell replacement therapy.
This is largely due to the hypothesis that restoring function to these cells would reverse Parkinson’s symptoms. This makes a lot of sense as front line therapy for the disease for many years has been dopamine replacement through L-dopa pills etc. Unfortunately, over time replacing dopamine through a pill loses its benefit, whereas replacing or fixing the cells themselves should be a more permanent fix.
Because a specific population of cells in one part of the brain are lost in the disease, multiple labs and clinicians have sought to replace or augment these cells by transplantation of “new” functional cells able to restore function to the area an theoretically restore voluntary motor control to patients with Parkinson’s disease.
Early clinical research showed some promise, however also yielded mixed results, using fetal tissue transplanted into the brains of Parkinson’s patients. As it turns out, the cell types required to restore movement and avoid side effects are somewhat nuanced. The field has moved away from fetal tissue and is currently pursuing the use of multiple stem cell types that are driven to what is believed to be the correct subtype of cell to repopulate the lost cells in the patient.
One project CIRM sponsored in this area with Jeanne Loring sought to develop a cell replacement therapy using stem cells from the patients themselves that have been reprogrammed into the kinds of cell damaged by Parkinson’s. This type of approach may ultimately avoid issues with the cells avoiding rejection by the immune system as can be seen with other types of transplants (i.e. liver, kidney, heart etc).
Still, others are using cutting edge gene therapy technology, like the clinical phase project CIRM is sponsoring with Krystof Bankiewicz to investigate the delivery of a gene (GDNF) to the brain that may help to restore the activity of neurons in the Parkinson’s brain that are no longer working as they should.
The bulk of the work in the field of PD at the present remains centered on replacing or restoring the dopamine producing population of cells in the brain that are affected in disease.
Any plans for Huntington’s?Nikhat Kuchiki
Dr. Lisa Kadyk: The good news is that there are now several new therapeutic approaches to Huntington’s Disease that are at various stages of preclinical and clinical development, including some that are CIRM funded. One CIRM-funded program led by Dr. Leslie Thompson at UC Irvine is developing a cell-based therapeutic that consists of neural stem cells that have been manufactured from embryonic stem cells. When these cells are injected into the brain of a mouse that has a Huntington’s Disease mutation, the cells engraft and begin to differentiate into new neurons. Improvements are seen in the behavioral and electrophysiological deficits in these mutant mice, suggesting that similar improvements might be seen in people with the disease. Currently, CIRM is funding Dr. Thompson and her team to carry out rigorous safety studies in animals using these cells, in preparation for submitting an application to the FDA to test the therapy in human patients in a clinical trial.
There are other, non-cell-based therapies also being tested in clinical trials now, using anti-sense oligonucleotides (Ionis, Takeda) to lower the expression of the Huntington protein. Another HTT-lowering approach is similar – but uses miRNAs to lower HTT levels (UniQure,Voyager)
TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURY (TBI)
My 2.5 year old son recently suffered a hypoxic brain injury resulting in motor and speech disabilities. There are several clinical trials underway for TBI in adults. My questions are:
Will the results be scalable to pediatric use and how long do you think it would take before it is available to children?
I’m wondering why the current trials have chosen to go the route of intracranial injections as opposed to something slightly less invasive like an intrathecal injection?
Is there a time window period in which stem cells should be administered by, after which the administration is deemed not effective?
Dr. Kelly Shepard: TBI and other injuries of the nervous system are characterized by a lot of inflammation at the time of injury, which is thought to interfere with the healing process- and thus some approaches are intended to be delivered after that inflammation subsides. However, we are aware of approaches that intend to deliver a therapy to a chronic injury, or one that has occurred previously. Thus, the answer to this question may depend on how the intended therapy is supposed to work. For example, is the idea to grow new neurons, or is it to promote the survival of neurons of other cells that were spared by the injury? Is the therapy intended to address a specific symptom, such as seizures? Is the therapy intended to “fill a gap” left behind after inflammation subsides, which might not restore all function but might ameliorate certain symptoms.? There is still a lot we don’t understand about the brain and the highly sophisticated network of connections that cannot be reversed by only replacing neurons, or only reducing inflammation, etc. However, if trials are well designed, they should yield useful information even if the therapy is not as effective as hoped, and this information will pave the way to newer approaches and our technology and understanding evolves.
We have had a doctor recommending administering just the growth factors derived from MSC stem cells. Does the science work that way? Is it possible to isolate the growth factors and boost the endogenous growth factors by injecting allogenic growth factors?
Dr. Stephen Lin: Several groups have published studies on the therapeutic effects in non-human animal models of using nutrient media from MSC cultures that contain secreted factors, or extracellular vesicles from cells called exosomes that carry protein or nucleic acid factors. Scientifically it is possible to isolate the factors that are responsible for the therapeutic effect, although to date no specific factor or combination of factors have been identified to mimic the effects of the undefined mixtures in the media and exosomes. At present no regulatory approved clinical therapy has been developed using this approach.
PREDATORY STEM CELL CLINICS
What practical measures are being taken to address unethical practitioners whose bad surgeries are giving stem cell advances a bad reputation and are making forward research difficult?Kathy Jean Schultz
Dr. Geoff Lomax: Terrific question! I have been doing quite a bit research into the history of this issue of unethical practitioners and I found an 1842 reference to “quack medicines.” Clearly this is nothing new. In that day, the author appealed to make society “acquainted with the facts.”
In California, we have taken steps to (1) acquaint patients with the facts about stem cell treatments and (2) advance FDA authorized treatments for unmet medical needs.
First, CIRM work with Senator Hernandez in 2017 to write a law the requires provides to disclose to patient that a stem cell therapy has not been approved by the Food and Drug administration.
We continue to work with the State Legislature and Medical Board of California to build on policies that require accurate disclosure of the facts to patients.
Second, our clinical trial network the — Alpha Stem Cell Clinics – have supported over 100 FDA-authorized clinical trials to advance responsible clinical research for unmet medical needs.
I’m curious if adipose stem cell being used at clinics at various places in the country is helpful or beneficial?Cheri Hicks
Adipose tissue has been widely used particularly in plastic and reconstructive surgery. Many practitioners suggest adipose cells are beneficial in this context. With regard to regenerative medicine and / or the ability to treat disease and injury, I am not aware of any large randomized clinical trials that demonstrate the safety and efficacy of adipose-derived stem cells used in accordance with FDA guidelines.
I went to a “Luncheon about Stem Cell Injections”. It sounded promising. I went thru with it and got the injections because I was desperate from my knee pain. The price of stem cell injections was $3500 per knee injection. All went well. I have had no complications, but haven’t noticed any real major improvement, and here I am a year later. My questions are:
1) I wonder on where the typical injection cells are coming from?
2) I wonder what is the actual cost of the cells?
3) What kind of results are people getting from all these “pop up” clinics or established clinics that are adding this to there list of offerings?
Dr. Geoff Lomax: You raise a number of questions and point here; they are all very good and it’s is hard to give a comprehensive response to each one, but here is my reaction:
There are many practitioners in the field of orthopedics who sincerely believe in the potential of cell-based treatments to treat injury / pain
Most of the evidence presented is case reports that individuals have benefited
The challenge we face is not know the exact type of injury and cell treatments used.
Well controlled clinical trials would really help us understand for what cells (or cell products) and for what injury would be helpful
Prices of $3000 to $5000 are not uncommon, and like other forms of private medicine there is often a considerable mark-up in relation to cost of goods.
You are correct that there have not been reports of serious injury for knee injections
However the effectiveness is not clear while simultaneously millions of people have been aided by knee replacements.
Do stem cells have benefits for patients going through chemotherapy and radiation therapy?Ruperto
Dr. Kelly Shepard: The idea that a stem cell therapy could help address effects of chemotherapy or radiation is being and has been pursued by several investigators over the years, including some with CIRM support. Towards the earlier stages, people are looking at the ability of different stem cell-derived neural cell preparations to replace or restore function of certain brain cells that are damaged by the effects of chemotherapy or radiation. In a completely different type of approach, a group at City of Hope is exploring whether a bone marrow transplant with specially modified stem cells can provide a protective effect against the chemotherapy that is used to treat a form of brain cancer, glioblastoma. This study is in the final stage of development that, if all goes well, culminates with application to the FDA to allow initiation of a clinical trial to test in people.
Dr. Ingrid Caras: That’s an interesting and valid question. There is a Phase 1 trial ongoing that is evaluating a novel type of stem/progenitor cell from the umbilical cord of healthy deliveries. In animal studies, these cells have been shown to reduce the toxic effects of chemotherapy and radiation and to speed up recovery. These cells are now being tested in a First-in-human clinical trial in patients who are undergoing high-dose chemotherapy to treat their disease.
There is a researcher at Stanford, Michelle Monje, who is investigating that the role of damage to stem cells in the cognitive problems that sometimes arise after chemo- and radiation therapy (“chemobrain”). It appears that damage to stem cells in the brain, especially those responsible for producing oligodendrocytes, contributes to chemobrain. In CIRM-funded work, Dr. Monje has identified small molecules that may help prevent or ameliorate the symptoms of chemobrain.
Is it possible to use a technique developed to fight one disease to also fight another? For instance, the bubble baby disease, which has cured (I think) more than 50 children, may also help fight sickle cell anemia? Don Reed.
Dr. Lisa Kadyk: Hi Don. Yes, the same general technique can often be applied to more than one disease, although it needs to be “customized” for each disease. In the example you cite, the technique is an “autologous gene-modified bone marrow transplant” – meaning the cells come from the patient themselves. This technique is relevant for single gene mutations that cause diseases of the blood (hematopoietic) system. For example, in the case of “bubble baby” diseases, a single mutation can cause failure of immune cell development, leaving the child unable to fight infections, hence the need to have them live in a sterile “bubble”. To cure that disease, blood stem cells, which normally reside in the bone marrow, are collected from the patient and then a normal version of the defective gene is introduced into the cells, where it is incorporated into the chromosomes. Then, the corrected stem cells are transplanted back into the patient’s body, where they can repopulate the blood system with cells expressing the normal copy of the gene, thus curing the disease.
A similar approach could be used to treat sickle cell disease, since it is also caused by a single gene mutation in a gene (beta hemoglobin) that is expressed in blood cells. The same technique would be used as I described for bubble baby disease but would differ in the gene that is introduced into the patient’s blood stem cells.
Is there any concern that CIRM’s lack of support in basic research will hamper the amount of new approaches that can reach clinical stages? Jason
Dr. Kelly Shepard: CIRM always has and continues to believe that basic research is vital to the field of regenerative medicine. Over the past 10 years CIRM has invested $904 million in “discovery stage/basic research”, and about $215 million in training grants that supported graduate students, post docs, clinical fellows, undergraduate, masters and high school students performing basic stem cell research. In the past couple of years, with only a limited amount of funds remaining, CIRM made a decision to invest most of the remaining funds into later stage projects, to support them through the difficult transition from bench to bedside. However, even now, CIRM continues to sponsor some basic research through its Bridges and SPARK Training Grant programs, where undergraduate, masters and even high school students are conducting stem cell research in world class stem cell laboratories, many of which are the same laboratories that were supported through CIRM basic research grants over the past 10 years. While basic stem cell research continues to receive a substantial level of support from the NIH ($1.8 billion in 2018, comprehensively on stem cell projects) and other funders, CIRM believes continued support for basic research, especially in key areas of stem cell research and vital opportunities, will always be important for discovering and developing new treatments.
What is the future of the use of crispr cas9 in clinical trials in california/globally. Art Venegas
Dr. Kelly Shepard: CRISPR/Cas9 is a powerful gene editing tool. In only a few years, CRISPR/Cas9 technology has taken the field by storm and there are already a few CRISPR/Cas9 based treatments being tested in clinical trials in the US. There are also several new treatments that are at the IND enabling stage of development, which is the final testing stage required by the FDA before a clinical trial can begin. Most of these clinical trials involving CRISPR go through an “ex vivo” approach, taking cells from the patient with a disease causing gene, correcting the gene in the laboratory using CRISPR, and reintroducing the cells carrying the corrected gene back into the patient for treatment. Sickle cell disease is a prime example of a therapy being developed using this strategy and CIRM funds two projects that are preparing for clinical trials with this approach. CRISPR is also being used to develop the next generation of cancer T-cell therapies (e.g. CAR-T), where T-cells – a vital part of our immune system – are modified to target and destroy cancer cell populations. Using CRISPR to edit cells directly in patients “in vivo” (inside the body) is far less common currently but is also being developed. It is important to note that any FDA sanctioned “in vivo” CRISPR clinical trial in people will only modify organ-specific cells where the benefits cannot be passed on to subsequent generations. There is a ban on funding for what are called germ line cells, where any changes could be passed down to future generations.
CIRM is currently supporting multiple CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing projects in California from the discovery or most basic stage of research, through the later stages before applying to test the technique in people in a clinical trial.
While the field is new – if early safety signals from the pioneering trials are good, we might expect a number of new CRISPR-based approaches to enter clinical testing over the next few years. The first of these will will likely be in the areas of bone marrow transplant to correct certain blood/immune or metabolic diseases, and cancer immunotherapies, as these types of approaches are the best studied and furthest along in the pipeline.
Explain the differences between gene therapy and stem cell therapy?Renee Konkol
Dr. Stephen Lin: Gene therapy is the direct modification of cells in a patient to treat a disease. Most gene therapies use modified, harmless viruses to deliver the gene into the patient. Gene therapy has recently seen many success in the clinic, with the first FDA approved therapy for a gene induced form of blindness in 2017 and other approvals for genetic forms of smooth muscle atrophy and amyloidosis.
Stem cell therapy is the introduction of stem cells into patients to treat a disease, usually with the purpose of replacing damaged or defective cells that contribute to the disease. Stem cell therapies can be derived from pluripotent cells that have the potential to turn into any cell in the body and are directed towards a specific organ lineage for the therapy. Stem cell therapies can also be derived from other cells, called progenitors, that have the ability to turn into a limited number of other cells in the body. for example hematopoietic or blood stem cells (HSCs), which are found in bone marrow, can turn into other cells of the blood system including B-cells and T-cells: while mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), which are usually found in fat tissue, can turn into bone, cartilage, and fat cells. The source of these cells can be from the patient’s own body (autologous) or from another person (allogeneic).
Gene therapy is often used in combination with cell therapies when cells are taken from the patient and, in the lab, modified genetically to correct the mutation or to insert a correct form of the defective gene, before being returned to patients. Often referred to as “ex vivo gene therapy” – because the changes are made outside the patient’s body – these therapies include Chimeric Antigen Receptor T (CAR-T) cells for cancer therapy and gene modified HSCs to treat blood disorders such as severe combined immunodeficiency and sickle cell disease. This is an exciting area that has significantly improved and even cured many people already.
Currently, how can the outcome of CIRM stem cell medicine projects and clinical trials be soundly interpreted when their stem cell-specific doses are not known?James L. Sherley, M.D., Ph.D., Director. Asymmetrex, LLC
Dr. Stephen Lin: Stem cell therapies that receive approval to conduct clinical trials must submit a package of data to the FDA that includes studies that demonstrate their effectiveness, usually in animal models of the disease that the cell therapy is targeting. Those studies have data on the dose of the cell therapy that creates the therapeutic effect, which is used to estimate cell doses for the clinical trial. CIRM funds discovery and translational stage awards to conduct these types of studies to prepare cell therapies for clinical trials. The clinical trial is also often designed to test multiple doses of the cell therapy to determine the one that has the best therapeutic effect. Dosing can be very challenging with cell therapies because of issues including survival, engraftment, and immune rejection, but CIRM supports studies designed to provide data to give the best estimate possible.
Is there any research on using stem cells to increase the length of long bones in people?” For example, injecting stem cells into the growth plates to see if the cells can be used to lengthen limbs.Sajid
Dr. Kelly Shepard: There is quite a lot of ongoing research seeking ways to repair bones with stem cell based approaches, which is not the same but somewhat related. Much of this is geared towards repairing the types of bone injuries that do not heal well naturally on their own (large gaps, dead bone lesions, degenerative bone conditions). Also, a lot of this research involves engineering bone tissues in the lab and introducing the engineered tissue into a bone lesion that need be repaired. What occurs naturally at the growth plate is a complex interaction between many different cell types, much of which we do not fully understand. We do not fully understand how to use the cells that are used to engineer bone tissue in the lab. However, a group at Stanford, with some CIRM support, recently discovered a “skeletal stem cell” that exists naturally at the ends of human bones and at sites of fracture. These are quite different than MSCs and offer a new path to be explored for repairing and generating bone.
Scientists have long tried to repurpose cells in order to potentially treat various types of conditions. This process, called reprogramming, involves changing one type of cell into another, such as a blood cell into a muscle cell or nerve cell. Although the technique has been around for decades, it has only been effective 1% of the time.
Fortunately, thanks in part to a CIRM grant, Dr. Justin Ichida and other researchers at USC have been able to untangle this complicated process to ensure reprogramming happens more efficiently. The researchers were able to figure out a process that reprograms cells much more reliably than previous methods.
The technique the scientists developed uses an enzyme to untangle reprogramming DNA, similar to how a hairdresser conditions untangled hair. Since DNA molecules are twisty by nature, due to the double helix configuration, they do not respond well when manipulated to change itself. Therefore, reprogramming DNA requires uncoiling, yet when scientists begin to unravel the molecules, they knot up tighter.
“Think of it as a phone cord, which is coily to begin with, then gets more coils and knots when something is trying to harm it,” Dr. Ichida said in a press release by USC.
To smooth the kinks, the researchers treated cells with a chemical and genetic cocktail that activates enzymes that open up the DNA molecules. This process releases the coiled tension and lays out the DNA smoothly, leading to more efficient cellular reprogramming.
This new technique works almost 100% of the time and has been proven in human and mouse cells. The increased efficiency of this techniques opens the possibilities for studying disease development and drug treatments. New cells could be created to replace lost cells or acquire cells that can’t be extracted from people, a problem observed in Parkinson’s, ALS, and other neurological diseases.
Moreover, since these reprogrammed cells are the same age as the parent cell, they could be used to better understand age-related diseases. It is possible that the reprogrammed cells may be better at creating age-accurate models of human disease, which are useful to study a wide array of degenerative diseases and accelerated aging syndromes.
To summarize his work, Dr. Ichida states in the USC press release that,
“A modern approach for disease studies and regenerative medicine is to induce cells to switch their identity. This is called reprogramming, and it enables the attainment of inaccessible tissue types from diseased patients for examination, as well as the potential restoration of lost tissue. However, reprogramming is extremely inefficient, limiting its utility. In this study, we’ve identified the roadblock that prevents cells from switching their identity. It turns out to be tangles on the DNA within cells that form during the reprogramming process. By activating enzymes that untangle the DNA, we enable near 100% reprogramming efficiency.”
California has the largest aging population in the United States. The U.S. Census Bureau has estimated that one in five Californians will be 65 or older by the year 2030. Unfortunately with age comes a wide of health related issues that can arise such as Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s is caused by changes in the brain that affect memory and thinking skills. The disease can progress to the point where carrying out the simplest tasks become quite a challenge. In the United States alone, 5.8 million people are living with Alzheimer’s, 630,000 of whom live in California. By 2050, the number of people with Alzheimer’s in the United States is expected to increase to almost 14 million.
To address this growing problem, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced the creation of a California Alzheimer’s Task Force comprised of scientists, politicians, and other individuals dedicated to addressing the needs of the Alzheimer’s community and the impact the disease has on California. The new task force has been tasked with releasing a report on the disease and ways to address the challenges it poses by 2020.
One of these task force members is our very own Lauren Miller Rogen, who is a dedicated member of our governing Board and the co-founder of Hilarity for Charity, a charity organization that raises awareness about and funds for research into Alzheimer’s. In addition to her advocacy work, Lauren is also a screenwriter and actress, staring alongside her husband Seth Rogen in movies such as 50/50 and Superbad.
“I’m so honored to join the Task Force to fight for the 670,000 Californians currently living with Alzheimer’s and for those who care for them,” Miller Rogen said. “This is a tremendous and diverse group who intend to create and propose real ideas to change the course of this disease.”
For Lauren, her journey towards becoming an advocate for Alzheimer’s is a very personal one. Her grandfather died of Alzheimer’s when she was just 12 years old and her grandmother died of the disease six years after that. Now, her mother is struggling with Alzheimer’s, having been diagnosed at the age of 55.
Way back in the 1990’s scientists were hard at work decoding the human genome, trying to map and understand all the genes that make up people. At the time there was a sense of hope, a feeling that once we had decoded the genome, we’d have cures for all sorts of things by next Thursday. It didn’t quite turn out that way.
The same was true
for stem cell research. In the early days there was a strong feeling that this
was going to quite quickly produce new treatments and cures for diseases
ranging from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s to heart disease and stroke. Although
we have made tremendous strides we are still not where we hoped we’d be.
It’s a tough lesson
to learn, but an important one: good scientific research moves at its own pace
and pays little heed to our hopes or desires. It takes time, often a long time,
and money, usually a lot of money, to develop new treatments for deadly
diseases and disorders.
Many people, particularly those battling deadly diseases who are running out of time, are frustrated at the slow pace of stem cell research, at the years and years of work that it takes to get even the most promising therapy into a clinical trial where it can be tested in people. That’s understandable. If your life is on the line, it’s difficult to be told that you have to be patient. Time is a luxury many patients don’t have.
But that caution is
necessary. The last thing we want to do is rush to test something in people
that isn’t ready. And stem cells are a whole new way of treating disease, using
cells that may stay in the body for years, so we really need to be sure we have
done everything we can to ensure they are safe before delivering them to
The field of gene
therapy was set back years after one young patient, Jesse Gelsinger,
died as a result of an early experimental treatment. We don’t want the same to
happen to stem cell research.
And yet progress is
being made, albeit not as quickly as any of us would like. At the end of the
first ten years of CIRM’s existence we had ten projects that we supported that
were either in, or applying to be in, a clinical trial sanctioned by the US
Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Five years later that number is 56.
Most of those are in
Phase 1 or 2 clinical trials which means they are still trying to show they are
both safe and effective enough to be made available to a wider group of people.
However, some of our projects are in Phase 3, the last step before, hopefully,
being given FDA approval to be made more widely available and – just as
important – to be covered by insurance.
Other CIRM-funded projects
have been given Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy (RMAT)
designation by the FDA, a
new program that allows projects that show they are safe and benefit patients
in early stage clinical trials, to apply for priority review, meaning they
could get approved faster than normal. Out of 40 RMAT designations awarded so
far, six are for CIRM projects.
We are working hard
to live up to our mission statement of accelerating stem cell treatments to
patients with unmet medical needs. We have been fortunate in having $3 billion
to spend on advancing this research in California; an amount no other US state,
indeed few other countries, have been able to match. Yet even that amount is
tiny compared to the impact that many of these diseases have. For example, the
economic cost of treating diabetes in the US is a staggering $327 billion a
The simple truth is
that unless we, as a nation, invest much more in scientific research, we are
not going to be able to develop cures and new, more effective, treatments for a
wide range of diseases.
Time and money are
always going to be challenging when it comes to advancing stem cell research
and bringing treatments to patients. With greater knowledge and understanding
of stem cells and how best to use them we can speed up the timeline. But
without money none of that can happen.
In ancient Greek mythology, a Chimera was a creature that was usually depicted as a lion with an additional goat head and a serpent for a tail. Due to the Chimera’s animal hybrid nature, the term “chimeric” came to fruition in the scientific community as a way to describe an organism containing two or more different sets of DNA.
A CIRM-funded study conducted by Dr. Mathew Blurton-Jones and his team at UC Irvine describes a way for human brain immune cells, known as microglia, to grow and function inside mice. Since the mice contain a both human cells and their own mice cells, they are described as being chimeric.
In order to develop this chimeric “mighty mouse” model, Dr. Blurton-Jones and his team generated induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which have the ability to turn into any kind of cell, from cell samples donated by adult patients. For this study, the researchers converted iPSCs into microglia, a type of immune cell found in the brain, and implanted them into genetically modified mice. After a few months, they found that the implanted cells successfully integrated inside the brains of the mice.
By finding a way to look at human microglia grow and function in real time in an animal model, scientists can further analyze crucial mechanisms contributing to neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, traumatic brain injury, and stroke.
For this particular study, Dr. Blurton-Jones and his team looked at human microglia in the mouse brain in relation to Alzheimer’s, which could hold clues to better understand and treat the disease. The team did this by introducing amyloid plaques, protein fragments in the brain that accumulate in people with Alzheimer’s, and evaluating how the human microglia responded. They found that the human microglia migrated toward the amyloid plaques and surrounding them, which is what is observed in Alzheimer’s patients.
In a press release, Dr. Blurton-Jones expressed the importance of studying microglia by stating that,
“Microglia are now seen as having a crucial role in the development and progression of Alzheimer’s. The functions of our cells are influenced by which genes are turned on or off. Recent research has identified over 40 different genes with links to Alzheimer’s and the majority of these are switched on in microglia. However, so far we’ve only been able to study human microglia at the end stage of Alzheimer’s in post-mortem tissues or in petri dishes.”
Furthermore, Dr. Blurton-Jones highlighted the importance of looking at human microglia in particular by saying that,
“The human microglia also showed significant genetic differences from the rodent version in their response to the plaques, demonstrating how important it is to study the human form of these cell.”
The full results of this study were published in Cell.
From Day One CIRM’s goal has been to advance stem cell research in California. We don’t do that just by funding the most promising research -though the 51 clinical trials we have funded to date clearly shows we do that rather well – but also by trying to bring the best minds in the field together to overcome problems.
Over the years we
have held conferences, workshops and symposiums on everything from Parkinson’s
palsy and tissue
engineering. Each one attracted the key players and stakeholders in the
field, brainstorming ideas to get past obstacles and to explore new ways of
developing therapies. It’s an attempt to get scientists, who would normally be
rivals or competitors, to collaborate and partner together in finding the best
It’s not easy to do,
and the results are not always obvious right away, but it is essential if we
hope to live up to our mission of accelerating stem cell therapies to patients
with unmet medical needs.
For example. This
past week we helped organize two big events and were participants in another.
The first event we
pulled together, in partnership with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, was a
workshop called “Brainstorm Neurodegeneration”. It brought together leaders in stem
cell research, genomics, big data, patient advocacy and the Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) to tackle some of the issues that have hampered progress
in finding treatments for things like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS and
ambitiously subtitled the workshop “a cutting-edge meeting to disrupt the field”
and while the two days of discussions didn’t resolve all the problems facing us
it did produce some fascinating ideas and some tantalizing glimpses at ways to
advance the field.
Two days later we partnered with UC San Francisco to host the Fourth Annual CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinics Network Symposium. This brought together the scientists who develop therapies, the doctors and nurses who deliver them, and the patients who are in need of them. The theme was “The Past, Present & Future of Regenerative Medicine” and included both a look at the initial discoveries in gene therapy that led us to where we are now as well as a look to the future when cellular therapies, we believe, will become a routine option for patients.
different groups together is important for us. We feel each has a key role to
play in moving these projects and out of the lab and into clinical trials and
that it is only by working together that they can succeed in producing the
treatments and cures patients so desperately need.
As always it was the patients who surprised us. One, Cierra Danielle Jackson, talked about what it was like to be cured of her sickle cell disease. I think it’s fair to say that most in the audience expected Cierra to talk about her delight at no longer having the crippling and life-threatening condition. And she did. But she also talked about how hard it was adjusting to this new reality.
Cierra said sickle
cell disease had been a part of her life for all her life, it shaped her daily
life and her relationships with her family and many others. So, to suddenly
have that no longer be a part of her caused a kind of identity crisis. Who was
she now that she was no longer someone with sickle cell disease?
She talked about how
people with most diseases were normal before they got sick, and will be normal
after they are cured. But for people with sickle cell, being sick is all they
have known. That was their normal. And now they have to adjust to a new normal.
It was a powerful
reminder to everyone that in developing new treatments we have to consider the
whole person, their psychological and emotional sides as well as the physical.
And so on to the third event we were part of, the Stanford Drug Discovery Symposium. This was a high level, invitation-only scientific meeting that included some heavy hitters – such as Nobel Prize winners Paul Berg and Randy Schekman, former FDA Commissioner Robert Califf. Over the course of two days they examined the role that philanthropy plays in advancing research, the increasingly important role of immunotherapy in battling diseases like cancer and how tools such as artificial intelligence and big data are shaping the future.
CIRM’s President and CEO, Dr. Maria Millan, was one of those invited to speak and she talked about how California’s investment in stem cell research is delivering Something Better than Hope – which by a happy coincidence is the title of our 2018 Annual Report. She highlighted some of the 51 clinical trials we have funded, and the lives that have been changed and saved by this research.
The presentations at
these conferences and workshops are important, but so too are the conversations
that happen outside the auditorium, over lunch or at coffee. Many great
collaborations have happened when scientists get a chance to share ideas, or
when researchers talk to patients about their ideas for a successful clinical
It’s amazing what happens when you bring people together who might otherwise never have met. The ideas they come up with can change the world.
For several years now, we have been trying to raise awareness about the risks posed by clinics offering unproven or unapproved stem cell therapies. At times it felt as if we were yelling into the wind, that few people were listening. But that’s slowly changing. A growing number of TV stations and newspapers are picking up the message and warning their readers and viewers. It’s a warning that is getting national exposure.
Why are we concerned about these clinics? Well, they claim
their therapies, which usually involve the patient’s own fat or blood cells,
can cure everything from arthritis to Alzheimer’s. However, they offer no
scientific proof, have no studies to back up their claims and charge patients
thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars.
“If it sounds too good to be true, it is. There is no good scientific evidence the pricey treatments work, and there is growing evidence that some are dangerous, causing blindness, tumors and paralysis. Medical associations, the federal government and even Consumer Reports have all issued stern warnings to patients about the clinics.”
In Denver, the
ABC TV station recently did an in-depth interview with a local doctor who is
trying to get Colorado state legislators to take legal action against stem cell
clinics making these kinds of unsupported claims.
really out of control,” he told the station.
ABC7 did a series
of reports last year on the problem and that may be prompting this push for
a law warning consumers about the dangers posed by these unregulated treatments
which are advertised heavily online, on TV and in print.
there is already one law on the books attempting to warn consumers about these
clinics. CIRM worked with State Senator Ed Hernandez to get that passed (you can read about that here)
and we are continuing to support even stronger measures.
And the NBC TV
station in San Diego recently reported on the rise of stem cell clinics around
the US, a story that was picked up by the networks and run on the NBC
One of the critical
elements in helping raise awareness about the issue has been the work done by Paul
Knoepfler and Leigh Turner in identifying how many of these clinics there are
around the US. Their report, published in the journal Cell
Stem Cell, was the first to show how big the problem is. It attracted
national attention and triggered many of the reports that followed.
It is clear
momentum is building and we hope to build on that even further. Obviously, the
best solution would be to have the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) crack
down on these clinics, and in some cases they have. But the FDA lacks the
manpower to tackle all of them.
That’s where the
role of the media is so important. By doing stories like these and raising
awareness about the risks these clinics pose they can hopefully help many
patients avoid treatments that will do little except make a dent in their
In 1983 President Ronald Reagan named November as Alzheimer’s Awareness month, to raise awareness about the growing impact the disease was having on Americans. At the time there were less than two million people with the disease. Today that number has grown to more than five million and is expected to reach 16 million by the year 2050. There is no cure and no effective treatments.
To mark Alzheimer’s Awareness month we are reprinting an article that CIRM Board member and Patient Advocate for Alzheimer’s, Lauren Miller, wrote for Lenny magazine, charting her own personal journey with the disease.
Two thousand eleven was a year of nonstop high points in my life. My creative dreams came true when I filmed a little indie movie I co-wrote about friendship and phone sex called For a Good Time, Call … My romantic dreams came true when I married the love of my life at a beautiful wedding surrounded by our friends and family. And then my professional dreams exploded with magical confetti when we sold our tiny, candy-colored, female-driven comedy to Focus Features after it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. So many moments I had dreamed about for years were actually happening.
It was the happiest time of my life!
Except that it also wasn’t. It was actually kind of the worst.
This was around five years into my mom’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. Up until that point, her disease had been in the early stages. Her symptoms manifested in the repeated stories she told, occasionally slurred or confused speech, and a serious attachment to my dad. But Alzheimer’s is like a train that can’t be stopped once it leaves the station. And although these early days were really scary, they were nothing compared to what happened as the disease barreled through my mom’s once vibrant and beautiful mind.
She lived in Florida, and I was all the way across the country in Los Angeles. When she was first diagnosed, she told me I wasn’t allowed to move back to Florida to be with her. She wanted me to live my life — one that she had worked so hard to support. She was selfless like that. It was more important to her that I pursue my dreams, my relationship, and my own life as an independent woman than to have me close while she was disappearing piece by piece.
I visited Florida as often as I could, and, in the first few years of her disease, she and my dad visited me in LA. In 2007, they came out for the premiere of Knocked Up — a huge celebration for my then-boyfriend, as it was his first starring role in a movie. We had a barbecue for friends and family at our house the day before the premiere, and while it was a delicious taco, rib, mac-’n’-cheese extravaganza, what I remember is having to show my mom where the silverware drawer was a dozen times. She also kept adding turkey to the vegetarian chili and I had to keep taking it out. I remember my sister-in-law asking if my mom was OK, and I remember telling her “she’s not.”
As the years went by, she got worse. When we were making For A Good Time, Call…, I wanted my parents to come to Los Angeles to visit the set of the movie I had worked so hard to put together. But my mom had started wandering off and having bathroom issues — this reality was enough to keep them home. It devastated my movie-buff dad (who had a closet full of 500-plus VHS tapes of all the greatest hits) that he couldn’t visit the set of his daughter’s first film, which his son was also executive producing. And it devastated me that I couldn’t show my mom that I was actually doing what she wanted — I was living my life. But there was no time to be sad about it; there was a pink phone ringing and I had to answer it with a smile because the cameras were rolling and I was literally living my dream! Or so I told myself.
The night before my wedding, at the rehearsal dinner, my mom told me, “I just want to go home. I don’t want to be here.” I knew it was because she didn’t know where she was. The pain of knowing that she didn’t know she was at my wedding was like that Alzheimer’s train plowing right through my heart.
I brought my new husband and his parents to Florida for Thanksgiving that year — we went to Disney World. I showed them where I was a cheerleader for my awesome high-school football team (go Dreadnaughts!) and made them eat a Publix sub sandwich, my favorite hometown food. We also witnessed my mom pacing the house endlessly, not making much sense with her words, and mistaking the floor for a toilet. It was not quite the way I envisioned introducing my in-laws to the home I grew up in.
Although things were finally happening in my career in a way I had dreamed about for years — I was going on auditions, having meetings with producers about writing exciting scripts, and traveling around as my little-movie-that-could was released in actual theaters — my outlook on life was growing darker and darker with each passing day. Every person I saw run a stop sign was responsible for ruining the world. If I heard someone say something I didn’t agree with, it meant everyone was stupid and there was no hope for humanity. And most of all, I was convinced that the whole concept of life was just utter shit if this is what happened to the greatest woman I’ve ever known, a woman who had lived her life giving so much to so many.
Once my stress resulted in silver-dollar-size bacne, three (minor) car accidents in four months, and general life-rage that was bordering on getting out of control, it seemed like the right time to talk to a professional.
My new therapist listened, she gave me tissues, she told me it was OK to feel all the pain I was feeling. She let me go on and on to her about how life was just so unfair. And she didn’t even make me feel ungrateful for discounting all the legitimately amazing stuff in my life, because the agony I was in needed attention.
But eventually, she started to suggest that perhaps not everything was totally awful. Maybe there were a few good things in my life. Like, maybe my wonderful husband? Or my generous and awesome friends? Or even my career that felt like it was finally happening?
“Nope!” I insisted. “None of those things matter because everyone is dumb and there’s no point to any of this, and it’s all just a cycle of sadness and devastation, yadda, yadda, negative, negative, fuck, ahhhh! …”
As it always does, time passed. My parents moved to Los Angeles, and I got a front-row seat to my mom’s decline. She was now fully incontinent, had stopped walking, and had essentially stopped communicating. Having her close felt good, but seeing her become a shell of who she used to be was draining. When I wasn’t at her house, life continued as it normally did for me — spending my days alone, writing about and ruminating on my anger, spending my evenings and weekends laughing with friends over good food, and occasionally attending premieres for my (very fortunate and hard-working) husband’s movies. My therapist kept insisting that “in life, there can be good and there can be bad, and, in fact, they can coexist.” Even though I was living it, I refused to believe her.
Until eventually, I did.
In the fall of 2012, I started writing a screenplay about a woman who is left at the altar and ends up going on what would have been her honeymoon cruise with her estranged father. Obviously, this story has nothing to do with my real life (you just read about my wedding and my awesome dad), but I was drawn to the idea of a female character whose life doesn’t go the way she wants it to but who finds a way through the pain. It took me almost two years to finish a full draft, in part because I was still finding my own way through the pain. But when I did finish, I realized had written a story about a woman whose life has been seriously rocked, and, through her journey to get to the other side of her sadness, she experiences laughter, friendship, and adventure, as well as heartache, anger, and struggle for acceptance. Just like me.
I recently started thinking of my life as a dramedy. It’s full of jokes about penises, people comically falling, and moments of pure love and joy. It’s also full of pain, loss, and real anger. Ups and downs, highs and lows. But somewhere along the way, through my work in therapy, through talking about what I had been going through with my mom, through creating Hilarity for Charity, through writing, through living through my pain, I began to let in some of the good with the bad. To understand that it’s OK to feel both sad when I leave my mom’s house and excited about the dinner with friends I’m going to that night. That perhaps the point of life is to appreciate both the happy moments and the sad moments together. That they give each other meaning. That we have to have both, that we all have both, that experiencing both is actually OK. And if we need to spend a little time in the sad lane, the happy lane really can still run alongside it, if we allow it to.
Lauren Miller Rogen is a filmmaker and Alzheimer’s advocate living in Los Angeles. Her directorial debut,Like Father, which she also wrote and produced, launched globally on Netflix on Friday, August 3.